Sunday, August 30, 2009


Observer Poll Further Evidence Labour Brand is Shot

Somehow, this picture of Gordon Brown in Afghanistan, says it all about him. There he is, arms straight down by his sides, staring glumly at the camera while his picture is taken with two squaddies. Apart from Margaret Beckett, no other current politician could be so
devastatingly uncharismatic.

This helps to explain the Observer poll results. This shows Brown, despite his immense hard work in elaborating policies which have probably yanked us out of a potentially more disastrous recession, has managed to achieve the minus results of John Major in the mid 1990s. You will recall that 'The Grey Man's ratings continued to bomb even though the economy had turned around. He and his chancellor, Ken Clarke, derived no electoral credit for that achievement and it seems Gordon is suffering the same fate.

Reason? The Conservative brand was shot to pieces by sleaze, incompetence and boredom and nothing they could do would help. I fear the same malady now afflicts Labour. 43% of respondents now believe the country is emerging from recession, compared to 7% in spring 2008. But during this substantial turnaround of opinion over the economy, Labour's support has continued to fall- now it's 26% to Conservatives' 43%. As with Major's dying months 19960-7, no amount of relaunching or policy initiatives is likely to turn things around. Defeatist? Well, maybe, but I think I'm just being realistic, though Labour must continue fighting tooth and nail to minimize the extent of their likely defeat.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Murdoch Assault on Beeb Must be Resisted

It's a strange thing about bullies: they don't, as Corporal Jones would have it, 'like it up 'em'. So I was not surprised that James Murdoch, the Chair and Chief Executive of News Corporation, and son of its founding genius, Rupert, should have devoted his McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival to a frontal attack on the BBC.

He aimed one of his darts at the Beeb's claim to be unbiased

“The effect of the system is not to curb bias – bias is present in all news media – but simply to disguise it

True that bias is present in all news but the BBC has established a worldwide reputation for reporting the truth, unlike the Murdoch owned Fox News. For example, if a thousand demonstrators had been attacked and many killed in China, we'd expect the BBC to report that fact- they might even despatch kate Adie to go and investigate. However, Murdoch's operation has deliberately pulled news items which have appeared unpalatable to the Chinese leadership in order to prevent business interests in that rapidly expanding country, being damaged. Which would you rather?

James- who looks eerily like our very own Brainbox David Miliband- also attacks the Beeb for bucking the markets: The BBC represents, for him:

“an impingement on freedom of speech and on the right of people to choose what kind of news to watch.”

Now I'm no knee jerk leftie who abominates the market but I tend to think- and redcent events in the international economy would support this- that unregulated markets can implode into chaos. In the news media allowing markets free rein encourages pursuit of the lowest common denominator of public taste, where vulgarity and sensationalism triumph over measured, informed journalism. Example? Look no further than our best selling 'newspaper', The Sun. At least the BBC, seeks to address civilised values: to educate as well as entertain and titivate. Which would you choose: the Today Programme or the journalism of the The Sun and News of the World?

Why is young James doing all this, and with such passion? Because he hates the fact the BBC has long been an obstruction to his father's attempts to dominate and subdue the british media scene. And, of course, because it offers a huge internatiional obstacle to his father's latest attempt to stem the haemorrhage of income to News Corporation by charging for online news. As long as the BBC offers the world such a service, this income is unlikely to flow in any great amounts. My reaction to the message is very similar to a Sun headline: Up Yours Murdoch!

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Grayling's Broken Britain -Wire Comparison Way Off Target

Chris Grayling has scored a bit of a hit with his comparing on 'Broken Britain' to The Wire's West Baltimore. But, as with any such carelessly populist ploy, there is a backlash to handle from the world of reality.

Misha Glenny makes the simplest of all points in this quotation:

Inner-city Baltimore has a population of roughly 630,000. In 2008, police recorded 234 murders in the city, the great bulk of them in The Wire's location, West Baltimore, and the other predominantly black areas of the city. England and Wales by contrast boasts a population of over 52 million. In the year ending March 2009, there were 624 violent deaths here. So Baltimore has just over 1% of our population but over a third of the whole country's murder rate.

Grayling, however, is onto a good topic to which voters are receptive-most people perceive a national decline in behaviour and values- but he's overdone things absurdly. The Wire, of which I am just one of millions of fans, shows us the downward spiral that is possible once work and aspiration are replaced by poverty and the Pandora's Box of destructive addictions; near alcoholic cop, Jimmy McNulty, is one of the healthier characters in the drama. It's a dystopic vision of the future which chills us all and as so much of American culture migrates across the Atlantic, it was clearly seductively easy for the Tories' Shadow Home Secretary to indulge the comparison.

Given the Tories' propensity for urging tougher sentences with more jail, Glenny offers another dose of reality, quoting the series' creator David Simon:

"It is possible,that a few thinking viewers, after experiencing a season or two of The Wire, might be inclined, the next time they hear some politician declaring that with more prison cells, more cops, more lawyers, and more mandatory sentences that the war on drugs is winnable, to say, aloud: 'You are hopelessly full of shit'."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Those Aussies We Love to Hate, We Come To Love

Following up my post of yesterday I have to say a word in support of the encomium given in the Guardian to the Australian captain today. I have not always agreed with this view; in 2005 I joined the catcalls against his alleged lack of sportsmanship when he was famously run out by Gary Pratt and I was not unhappy to see him bloodied at Lords in 2005 or indeed at the Oval, more recently. He epitomises the 'to the death' Australian attitude to sport and cricket in particular. He gives no quarter and he expects none.

But his comments in the aftermath of defeat are invariably generous and as sporting as any Brit. He is also his country's highest scoring batsman and it was a tribute to his immense ability that Flintoff's wonderful throw to run him out was generally seen by the full-house Oval crowd as the moment when the Ashes had returned to these shores. We 'hate' him only because he is the best. I wouldn't have it any other way.

However, something oddly transformative happens when great Ausatralian cricketers retire and gravitate towards the media. We've seen it with th Chappels and more recently with this series. Shane Warne has emerged as a hugely likeable and perceptive television commentator and someone I personally abominated- Mathew Hayden- tunred out to be totally charming and a pleasure to listen to on TMS. Perceptions forged in the heat of battle rarely survive the closer inspection which work in the media provides.

Monday, August 24, 2009


What a Victory But However Did We Manage it?

I fear this is not a post for cricket haters. But I have travelled too far too often (and expensively) in support of England's practitioners of our summer game, not to indulge a little of our triumph of yesterday. To come back after the humiliation of Headingley's innings and 80 run defeat to deliver a sharp lesson to the all powerful Aussies was astonishing and evidence of how wonderful this ridiculous game is. To win by 197 runs was a crushing defeat and a delight to those of us who love to hate our most bitter rivals for cricket supremacy. Andrew Flintoff's scorching throw to run out the scampering Ponting was one of the most thrilling moments I can remember in any recent sporting event.

But here's the odd thing: Ponting was quite right to say the stats showed the Aussies had been the better team and it's almost a problem to work out how we won:

1. Of the top seven scorers, we got one- they six.
2. They scored 8 centuries- we managed only 2.
3. The had 3 scores above 400 -we had 2.
4. They had three bowlers who took 20 wickets- we had none(Broad managed only 18).
5. They had two 5-fors- we managed 4.

It's in the last stat that part of the mystery is solved. We managed two 5-fors at crucial stages in matches we went on to win. Even allowing for the achiecvment this time, it doesn't seem quite like the roaring triumph of 2005- nor was the cricket quite as outstanding either. In 2005 England had a formidable, rapidly improving side: the Aussies were No1 in the world. This time they were still No I but they had recently been beaten by South Africa and they had lost their superstars: Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Gilchrist.

Meanwhile our bowlers were reckoned to be handy and possibly a match for their relatively new line up. So it proved. But I'm still not entirely sure how we did it- not that I'm worrying.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Common Sense on MPs' Pay

Sir patrick Cormack looks so much like a parody of a Conservative MP- overweight with ponderous jowls, establisment, boring before he's even spoken- it is hard to take him seriously. But I think we ought to on the subject of MPs' pay. In the linked article he suggests they should receive £130,000 a year, double what they get now and over six times the national average salary. 'Ridiculous!' I hear people say, 'they just don't get it'. And of course many of them don't.

But how much should they get? Clearly the expenses will have to be reformed and reduced, especially the second homes allowance. Maybe MPs should return to overnight allowances, rather than the easily exploited support for a flat or house. However, there is some merit in setting a 'proper' salary for MPs and expecting them , like the rest of us, to cope on substantially that. Cormack, supported by Hogg though only to the tune of £100,000, suggests essentially that: pay a flat rate and abolish all expenses apart from staff and constituency offices. It might work but I think the 'headline' salary is too high to be politically acceptable at the present time. Hogg is closer to it.

I have said on this blog that I think nobody should enter politics who wants to get rich and I think that still stands. There is no shortage of candidates but it's the right kind of people with real abiliy who are needed- New Labiour has been severely short of quality ministers for example. If we lived in an ideal world public spirited people would step forward and do the job for the average wage only- as, to their credit, the two Militant Labour MPs (Terry Fields and Pat Wall) did during the eighties. But we do not live in the ideal world. Able people who might otherwise serve are deterred by a salary which would not keep them plus family in reasonable comfort. So we have to set a level which hits a happy medium between what is needed to attract good people and what the public thinks is excessive.

I think Derek Wyatt- former England rugby palyer by the way- has got it about right: all expenses should be scrapped and that pay should rise to £80,000 for inner London MPs and £95,000 for those with constituencies outside this area. I think we'd all be able to live with that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Zopa Sounds Super Alternative to Apalling Banks

Jonathan Freedland is a very sharp columnist and today he informs us about a great idea. I like it because it suits the mood of the time and is based squarely on market principles so that even the most rightwing critic could not object to it, even if it is being publicised by a Guardian writer.

Freedland reminds us of the current infamy of the banks(see Goldman Sachs and Barlcays buildings pictured) whereby US banks have trousered $175bn of taxpayers' money and yet have rewarded themselves with $35bn in bonuses! Just astonishing is it not? Rewards in the UK will inevitably be in a similar category.

There has been much talk of curbing such excesses but the bankers have done as they please and the merest suggestion of a High Pay Commission- supported by Vince Cable and Labour think tank- Compass, has already caused both Osborne and Darling to shriek dismissive protestations.

Freedland's suggestion is based on a real life innovation, born of consumers' desire to adapt to new conditions. Zopa is an online bank, a bit like Betfair the online bookie- where some people offer money at stated interest rates and borrowers take their pick. Zopa checks creditworthiness and lays off the risk so that defaultings are very rare and do not really hurt lenders.

And the system- though in its infancy- actually works. I do so hope it catches on- though the cynic in me also wonders that if it does- its owners will be raking in huge bonuses in a decade or so which a new generation will castigate and demonise. Plus ca change...?

Monday, August 17, 2009


Portillo Well Wide of Stumps on Why Aussies Beat us at Cricket

I've always thought Michael Portillo a very thoughtful and rigorous political thinker and he may well be. But on cricket he leaves much to be desired. Take his piece yesterday for example. He quotes the Australian cricketer Justin Langer:

"England cricketers are programmed, they will be up when things are going well, but they will taper off very quickly if you wear them soon as it gets a bit hard you just have to watch their body language and see how fat and lazy they get”.

Now, speaking as fervent (and often fervently disappointed), fan of our summer game, Langer could be right, though I think, despite no longer being a Test player, he was merely trying to stoke up the mind games in which the Aussies always indulge. But Portillo's subsequent analysis is a bit of a joke. He alleges the post 1945 welfare state have made us 'soft and selfish'; 'the welfare state does not produce dogged fighters on the sports field.' He goes on to ask:

Are Australians perhaps kept tougher by their fearful climate, forest fires, crocodiles and poisonous spiders?

Well, this might be the case, though I doubt it. I've no idea why the Aussies are on balance better than we are at sport but I suspect their 'fearful climate' has something to do with it though for the reverse reason. The sun shines so often there that children are constantly outdoors: swimming, running, playing cricket, rugby Australian Rules Football or whatever. It must help a great deal. It might also be said that 'Team GB', as we absurdly called ourselves in Beijing, out medalled the Australians clearly, so his case is a bit shakey before we even look any further into it

But to blame the welfare state is silly and absurd. If Michael had ever looked around when he has visited the country he might have noticed schools, hospitals and publicly funded old folks homes. He might even have seen their equivalent Labour's welfare showpiece, Sure Start. Australians are brought up in a welfare state very much like our own for goodness sake. According to Portillo then, they should also be 'fat and lazy' with no 'dogged' traits on the sports field. But they are not. The reasons why they beat us at cricket so regularly lie in a baffling mix of cultural reasons. And I would suggest the view,frequently voiced in pubs and at cricket grounds that the reason is simply because they are 'bastards'(effing or otherwise), be abandoned also: it has about as much logical substance as Porillo's article.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Case for NHS Being Robustly Made

My post on Daniel Hannan's scurrilouis attack on the NHS over US airwaves occasioned a vigorous and well informed attack from my old rightwing sparring partner, 'Michael Oakeshott'. In the final analysis we agree to disagree- it's a philosphical difference between a hard right Tory and a Guardian reading liberal- but, given the furore over the issue, I cannot resist another sally forth. The Guardian today offers more comparative data: OK life expectancy is only a one per cent difference(them 77, us 78) but under 5 mortality rate per thousand births is 6 to 9 respectively, suggesting major advantages for mothers on this side of the Atlantic.

Further, the number of acute care hospital beds per 1000 people is 2.8 in the US- 3.6 in UK. And those, like Hannan, who say the US should never adopt a system as wasteful and expensive as the NHS should consider that the US health insurance model takes up 16% of their GDP while the NHS, absorbs only 8.3% of ours. We get more for paying much, much less. Emeritus London University Professor Glickstein, writing today cites the excellent care he has received in London, saying 'it is the absence of fear of becoming ill that is the most important aspect of the system.' In the US unemployment can bring a terror of illness to low income families and to those who relied on employer paid health insurance for their peace of mind.

Glickstein also points to the fact that when doctors provide care 'no money changes hands'. My brief experience of the US system occurred in 1996 when my then wife had to make an emergency visit to a New Orleans hospital when she incurred a painful tear in her throat after eating some rough hewn salad in a restaurant. While she was waiting for an X ray a nurse asked 'would you like a lozenge to sooth your throat honey?' When we got the bill-it was about £1000 for almost no care at all- one of the items written up was 'Throat Lozenge- 1.5 dollars'. The hospital also continued to write threatening letters to me for months afterwards demanding payment when I had actually paid by credit card at the time while over there. So the NHS is not the only 'inefficient bureaucracy' either.

It's clear that Cameron and company realise the strengths of the NHS and appreciate the warmth with which it is regarded. So many of us or our loved ones would be dead without its ministrations, and despite its manifold weaknesses, it is a marvellous institution. The US system is the best in the world for treatment but access is limited to those who can afford the cost. Poor people often have to suffer the indignity of relying purely on charity. My picture shows volunteer medical staff offer free medical, vision and dental services to those without health insurance and in need at a special event in Los Angeles.

The irony of this debate is that Obama is not suggesting that the US should go NHS- he merely wants to use government funds to extend health insurance to the 46 m who remain uncovered. Peter Wilby makes a key point regarding the finance behind the US campaign of scaremongering and half truths:

The most determined, coherent and organised voices in any contemporary political debate are those of the corporate sector and its allies. It can afford the PR and advertising to change the terms of public discourse and it well knows that lies and half-truths – for example, that the NHS leaves the old and chronically ill to die, that 40% of British cancer patients don't see an oncologist, that Edward Kennedy would be left untreated in Britain for his brain tumour – can sow doubt in people's minds even if they are easily disproved. The corporate sector can also intimidate and compromise elected politicians.

Finally, Simon Hoggart has a go at the American right today:

All over the US there are people whose lives are being destroyed for lack of proper health care provision, and there is no sight more odious than the rich, powerful and arrogant trying to keep it that way.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Rupert's Plan to Charge For Online News

Most people who follow the fortunes of the media know that the print media have been suffering a 2-3% drop per annum in circulation for the past couple of decades. Moreover newspapers now carry less advertising than the internet, removing another key income stream. The web is part of the answer for this decline of course. We all know people who have given up buying newspapers in exchange for reading them online. Also young people seem to have given up reading the papers, preferring the web and radio or television. So newspapers are in effect, dying.

This is the backdrop to Murdoch's decision to charge for use of online press services. Some kind of business model will be constructed whereby we might be asked to pay an annual subscription to log on to certain kinds of news product. But will it work?

A number of factors suggest it won't.

1. The online culture is very much at present that news is for free- Murdoch will be swimming against that tide.

2. Attempts by US papers to charge have failed in the past.

3. Crucially, there are other outlets which will continue to offer free news, most notably the BBC which is paid for by licence holders. Sky also provides a comparable service, though as it's owner, Rupert can presumably decide to change things.

Murdoch says he thinks most major papers will eventually follow his lead and some, like Andrew Neil, seem to think he is right. But for 3) above, I think this(one has to admit) hugely talented and risk-taking business man might crash and burn on this one. Would you start paying for news if the BBC site is only a click away? Me neither. He will have to be very clever in designing his business model but I can't see anything viable on any horizon right now. One bright aspect of this might rebound to the advantage of the bloggers. We don't charge and, if online charging does become commonplace, I can see a future for sites which summarize news content from free sites, adding their own comment as necessary.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


MEP Hannan Hannan Traduces NHS to USA

On 30th July, The Economist discerned it was 'Crunch Time' for Obama over the issue of health reform. His attempts to enfranchise 50 million of his countrymen and women into the otherwise best health system in the world, is threatened by misreprentation by republicans and their friends working for lobbyists of the sprawling mainly privately owned US health service. Summoned to assist, the been the briefly Youtube celebrated Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, recently addressed the Army and Navy Club in Washington. The Washinton Times 7th August, warmly appreciated his efforts:

Mr. Hannan made a convincing case that the American
health care system is far superior to the British one, and thus should not
move down Britain's path toward government control.
"Ponder our example, and tremble," Mr. Hannan warned. "You see a grizzly
picture of your own country's possible future. . .. Do not make the same
mistakes we have."* *He continued: "I see this massive encroachment of the
state... this huge power grab by the state machine... squeezing the private
sector, to engorge the state." In Great Britain, he explained, "It is not
uncommon to wait six, 10, even 12 months for a knee operation." He said, *"It
is exactly a Marxist system. You are treated as a supplicant and expected
to be grateful for what you get. But our survival rates [in the United
Kingdom] are demonstrably worse."

What total, pathetic and near criminal rubbish! A Marxist system? The NHS is many things- and not all of them good- but this is adjective is surely meaningless and crude abuse by a none too bright carper-bagging politician, trying to pay for his summer holiday by echoing the lies of those out to ruin Obama's health reforms; just as they did Clinton's in the early 1990s. Poor Americans who fall ill face the bleakest of futures. No hospital will accept someone seriously ill unless they can pay and they get passed from one location to another, often dying alone while those who can afford the insurance do indeed rreceive the best care in the world. Over here, people with terminal cancers receive the best care available, irrespectrive of their income.

The slur about waiting lists might have been true under the Tories when the NHS was allowed to run down and atrophy, but it is definitely not the case now, thanks to the refunding this often wrongly maligned government has channelled into it. To suggest otherwise, in these circumstances is despicable, given the how high the stakes are over this for the American poor.

Finally, we are not 'expected to feel grateful'. I received wonderful treatment by NHS doctors and nurses when I had a stroke in 1992- when it was so badly run down I had to sleep in a corridor during my first night in hospital- and nobody put any pressure whatsoever on me to be grateful. But you can bet I bloody well was.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Mandelson's Astonishing Rise from the Dead

Occasionally in the study of politics, someone comes along who seems so brilliantly original you feel they must be a fictional invention rather than a living breathing and, in Mandy's case, epicine slim, Cabinet minister. Decca Aitkenhead's excellent interview gets to the heart of this complex man I felt. Twice sacked and conveniently packed away by Blair to Brussels, he seemed already by the time of the last election, a mere half chapter in New Labour's history.

But history clearly had another role in store for him. Gordon Brown proved so hopeless as prime minister, he reached out for the one person apart from Blair with much more talent than he had to help him. Bringing back The Prince of Darkness, has proved the most inspirational purely political thing Brown has done- OK then, maybe the only one. Like a competent new batsman coming to the crease after a catastrophic clatter of wickets-no prizes for discerning where that analogy came from- he has quietened down the dressing room and helped the team to raise its game. He cannot deliver victory but, crucially, maybe he can help his team to not lose so badly.

He is on 35 of the 43 Cabinet committees and, according to his interviewer, is already producing the apprearance of shape to key policy areas:

By all accounts he is a first-class minister, and in recent weeks the green shoots of a coherent government programme – on transport, climate change, social care – have been attributed to his influence.

Almost certainly his real attitude to Brown, as to so many people, is not of admiration, but pitying condescension; some of this comes over in the article. However, I like better the image produced by Steve Punt in Last Friday's Now Show when he compared Gordon and Mandy to the pantomime cartoon characters, the suave Dick Dastardly and the hopeless Muttley.

Aitkenhead reinforces this by assessing his present degree of power:

With 11 ministers answering directly to him, Mandelson's department is the now the biggest in Whitehall – but to describe him as Brown's de facto deputy is if anything to understate his position. He is arguably more powerful today than the prime minister himself.

Within the Westminister village, we learn there is much talk of Mandelson renouncing his peerage to come back in 2010 as an MP and stand for the Labour leadership; Hilary Armstrong's North-west Durham seat has even been mentioned. And Ladrokes have reduced the odds on such an eventuality in recent weeks, from 200-1 to 16-1: generous odds I'd say, given Mandy's history and the degree of hatred he inspired in his own party. Extending the cricket analogy, such an outcome would be like Ian Botham coming back into the Test team to hit a double century against the Aussies at the Oval.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Britain's Looming Electricity Gap

Sometimes we should worry about longer term things than mere political positioning. The Economist(8/8/09) directsour attention to the prospect of selective black-outs in a few years time unless we can prevent the energy gap growing. Currently we consume 59 gigawatts as a nation with 45% produced by North Sea Gas; 35% from coal; 15% from nuclear power and the rest from renewables and other sources. By 2115 it is reckoned we'll need 64GW and it is by no means clear we can cover the difference.

Coal is the dirtiest type of fuel and denies climate change policies. North Sea oil peaked in 2000 and is faling away rapidly. Nuclear energy seems to be an alternative but has its own band of resolute environmental critics and severe financial constraints too. To make matters even worse, some 20GW of capacity will disappear by 2015 meaning that too wil need to be replaced. EDF, the nuclear power station, talks up its product by predicting a gap of 32GW, not a mere 5, so the possibility of electricity having to be rationed-as in a 3rd world country- cannot be ruled out.

In 2008 two power stations failed at the same time and there were black-outs across the country. At the very least prices are likely to shoot ever upwards, unless some answer can be found. The irony is wave and wind power are amazingly plentiful in this windswept island but the technology to harness it has proved elusive. Our future uninterupted supplies might very well depend on a breakthrough being made.

Friday, August 07, 2009


Reasons to Keep Sure Start Going Despite Expenditure Cuts

OK, so the picture is old but there is not much that has changed socially in Harlem, where we learn a new social experiment is showing what imaginative governmnent intervention can do. Jeni Russell's article explains the scope of the problem:

An eight-year-old boy from Harlem has a 33% chance of ending up in prison. Three-quarters of Harlem schoolchildren can't pass the grade exams for their age. A third of students drop out of high school. Unemployment is double the average. The hundreds of millions in community support and educational initiatives tried in Harlem over the past decades have effectively achieved almost nothing. Some lives have been turned around, but the grim backdrop of most people's existence has remained stubbornly unchanged.

The key period in our lives is the first three years psychology research shows and if you are middle class you start with huge leap of an advantage:

All the latest research on the brain showed that much of a child's capacity to think and to learn was set in the first three years of life. Middle-class families were spending those years talking, singing and reading to their children. Poor children weren't getting any of that. They were arriving at school with an average of 25 hours of one-to-one reading behind them. Middle-class children had had 1,700 hours, and their vocabulary was twice as large. They had learned to argue and discuss, and had been introduced to conceptual thinking. Above all, the middle-class children arrived with confidence. They had been encouraged. By the age of three they had heard six times as many encouraging words as discouraging ones. Poor children had been reprimanded two and a half times more than they had been praised.

Geoffrey Canada has pioneered the experiment whereby every child in a section of Harlem has been given intensive support with a series of Promise Academies. The results have been spectacular:

Whereas the American pattern is for the black/white achievement gap to start wide and become a gulf, so that only 7% of black 14-year-olds pass their grade in maths, the Promise academies are reversing that. Some 97% of their eighth-graders are performing at or above grade level. The elementary school has closed the racial gap in language and in maths, and the pre-kindergarten children are outperforming their white counterparts.

What has this to do with us? Well, as everyone who has eyes in their heads can see or read, we have an acute problem with underachievment as a result of poverty. Sure Start, begun in 1998, has been based on vey similar assumptions and there are indications the programme could be as successful as Head Start, the US programme which has been going since 1965. The problem is such resources cost money and in the present atmosphere cuts rather than spending are the dominant theme. Preserving Sure Start is one of the few genuine reasons still existing for voting Labour as far as I can see. We cannot afford not to progress such programmes.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Are Open Primaries a Bit too Democratic?

I remember helping to choose Ann Coffey, our Stockport MP. Several candidates spoke their pieces and then we voted. But it was just us lot from Stockport Labour Party. Yesterday the Tories, replaced Anthony Steen- not before time I hear you think- with Sarah Wollaston. It was done though an open primary system whereby every voter in the constituency has a say in selecting who represents each party in the general election. The system is widely used in the USA where they tend to be more scrupulous about how democratic their democracy is than we are. Martin Bell and David Cameron are both in favour. And so, I think, am I but I do have my doubts.

When everyone has a vote it will tend to make the candidates more acceptable across the constituency and less likely to be extreme. On the ther hand I can see quite a few disadvantages:

1. It costs about £40,000 to run a postal primary like this.

2. Opponents can vote tactically to help select the candidate they think will lose against theirs.

3. By making candidates tooacceptable would we not produce too much homogeneity? Too much blandness? Might it not spell the end of radical voices?
Surely we want political parties to offer genuine choices to the voter?

So I'm still not sure. If we emasculate such choice at such an early stage, are we not actually diminishing democratic choice?

Monday, August 03, 2009


We Now Have a new Constitution since 1997 Argues Vernon Bogdanor

Professor Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford University published a book-The New British Constitution- which argues that, in effect Britain had evolved a ‘new’ constitution, in the place of the old one. This famously unwrittren one, of course, was basically quite simple. As parliament was sovereign, acccording to the great 19th century theorist AV Dicey, so the British constitution, says the author, ‘can be summed up in just eight words- what the Queen in Parliament enacts is law.’

Bogdanor goes on however to argue that so many developments have happened since 1997 as to undermine the old certainties and provide an ‘essential prologue’ to an emergent new constitution.

He lists 15 such developments, the most important of which are: the Scotland Act setting up the Scottish Parliament; the Government of Wales Act doing the same thing for the Welsh Assembly; the Northern Ireland Act, like the other two in 1998, providing for devolution in that province; the establishment of an elected mayor for London and a related Assembly; the Human Rights Act affecting all levels of public bodies; PR for European elections in 1998; the House of Lords Act abolishing all but 92 hereditary peerages from the Lords; the Freedom of Information Act, 2000, providing access to government information; the Political Parties and Referendums Act, 2000, regulating parties; and the Constitu-tional Reform Act, 2005, reforming the office of Lord Chancellor and setting up the Supreme Court.

There can be little doubt that Bogdanor is justified in saying that ‘the new constitution is being created before our eyes’ and whatever New Labour might not have achieved, Blair and co will go down as the greeat modernizers of our system of government.

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